Monday, March 16, 2009

Dance: Ethan Stiefel and His Students at Guggenheim's Works and Process

The Works & Process season is generally a well-curated cross-section of performance arts, but this year, they are scraping the bottom of the proverbial barrel (or courting some nepotistic donor). Last night was literal amateur hour: undergraduate students from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts joined their new Dean, Ethan Stiefel (Principal Dancer, American Ballet Theater). Ethan was interviewed by Matthew Murphy, an UNCSA alumnus who danced with ABT as well, and then by Larry Keigwin (of Keigwin + Company), whom Stiefel brought to UNCSA as a guest artist.

Perhaps because Stiefel spoke more as an administrator than as a dancer, his comments were not particularly interesting. In fact, and perhaps egged on by Murphy's own cavalier attitude, he seemed rather flippant about the process by which he was recruited for the role. Keigwin is a fascinating and very of-the-moment choreographer, but his presence didn't add much depth to the discussion; it was ultimately an excessively cheerful puff-piece, driven by banter that (Keigwin's excepted) rang falsely.

And the dancing was almost unmentionably bad. The choreography, by UNCSA faculty, was either embarassingly dated (like Tangled Tango, something one would expect to see on an early-80s episode of The Muppet Show), clearly outside the dancers' ability (in the Pas de Deux from Le Corsaire, the girl almost fell over twice during her turns, and the boy was not yet strong enough to manage the dramatic lifts; his entire body was buckled and trembling, and I was certain that he was doing damage to his lumbar spine), or so infantile that one would expect it at one's children's school talent show (like the Four Cygnets section from Swan Lake).

I realize that these are young dancers in training, and so I do not want to be cruel. It is the Guggenheim's responsibility to present performers of a certain caliber, not children playing at pretend. And as a somewhat cruel aside, dancers of the same age at Russian ballet academies are far more accomplished (and do not sound like stomping cattle when they cross the stage in pointe shoes—the Cygnets almost sounded like tap dancers). It is Stiefel's responsibility to instruct his students on the proper diet for dancers, as well as to train them much harder, both physically and theatrically (did I mention that they all wore virtual death masks?).

Keigwin's Natural Selection, shown in an abridged version to accommodate the limits of the small theatre and the traveling students, was the sole piece of watchable choreography in the evening's program. But the dancers were visibly straining, and simply could not do many of the jumps. I do think that, as students, they should be working on repertory this challenging, but they should certainly not be performing it, at least not in New York, at the Guggenheim, for a paying audience. At the show's end, were they flushed with pride, having danced on a real stage in the big city, or were they red with shame, for having shown their big thighs and flat feet to what is arguably the toughest audience in the world?

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